The Last Photo

The Last Photo

Ever since junior high school, I was the kid with the camera. And many years later, I’m still the guy who shows up to every life event with camera in hand to document the lives of my friends.

I used to carry around a hulking DSLR, but the weight bothers me, and the large size feels too intrusive for the everyday. I don’t want to interrupt life by taking photos, I simply want them to remember the fractions of a second that end up representing curated slices of life.

Within my archive of hundreds of thousands of photos, there are many that represent the last photo I will ever take of someone or some place. Some of these photos are inconsequential. They might capture a blurry stranger in the background, or perhaps a one-time friend forged through a glass of wine in a distant land.

Then there are the ones that matter.

***

There is a strange inflection point in life when more people you know are dying or getting sick than getting married and having kids. Suddenly, the act of taking a photo isn’t about eliciting FOMO and instant nostalgia on social media, but rather a tiny memorial of all the experiences that make up a rich life.

This doesn’t mean the act of taking a photo should be morbid. Perhaps it means that in a world where the avalanche of images has rendered so much photography worthless, there are still photos that are priceless. And for the photographer, not only is the image valuable, but so is the memory of taking the photo.

***

The guy in the back with the pencil. That’s B and this is high school trigonometry taken with my Olympus OM-4. I remember the class vividly because Mrs. Field was a great teacher, and the class often felt celebratory. It was math, but we were having a good time.

B was a funny, cool kid. He was a senior when I was a junior, and at the time, the difference seemed interminably large. We were never friends, but there was always a sense of camaraderie in that classroom. After the year ended, B graduated, and he would otherwise be a footnote in my memory except for one thing.

That summer, he died.

People often say that teens feel invincible. I’m not sure this is accurate. I think that they simply don’t think about death because they haven’t encountered it. There is no point of reference. They have a whole life ahead of them. At least they’re supposed to.

B was the first kid I knew who died, and although I remember being floored by such a notion then, it didn’t affect me the way that it does now. Now I think about the tragedy of a life unfulfilled. What would he have become? Something exceptional? Something average? No doubt, something important to someone else, as he was on his last day.

This last photo is nothing. It’s a photobomb before photobombing was a thing. He’s not even supposed to be in the picture. Yet, there he is. The last photo is everything.

***

Sara was one of my first hires in the early days of Web 1.0 at HotJobs. Despite an uncertain start, she blossomed, and became a big part of the department. Eventually she married, and she asked me to photograph her wedding. She moved to Seattle with her husband, and started work as a project manager.

People move, life carries on, friendships fade. But one day I got a call from our mutual friend Amanda, who urged me to go visit Sara.

I hadn’t seen her in years, and she somehow found herself with Stage 4 colon cancer at the age of 35. It was the type of dire situation that led us to plan an early Christmas, and the day before we were set to celebrate, we gathered in her bedroom to shoot the breeze.

Sara’s friend, Jennifer, grabbed my camera and shot the last photo. Not even cancer could restrain her booming laugh; her skeletal frame still capable of supporting her huge grin.

The last photo is a happy one. I remember it because John was there. Declan was there. Amanda was there. V was there. Sara smoked a joint to ease the pain before it became legal. It was good to be amongst old friends – even one last time.

***

My grandfather on his 100th birthday

Grandparents are a shield against mortality.

With them, two generations of life stand before you — your parents and their parents — protecting you from the uncertainty of death. Once you lose your grandparents, life feels more precarious.

I am fortunate. All my grandparents lived into their 90s or 100s. My maternal grandmother was the last. For years after her husband died at 100, she lived quietly in a room adjacent to my parents’ in Honolulu. Although she had slowed physically, her mind was still sharp, and I would sometimes find her in the yard doing leg lifts.

In a world of overconsumption, hers was simple. No need for anything, save her television and La-Z-Boy. She tried pizza for the first time around the age of 90, and loved it. But other than that, her life had a predictable rhythm that was rarely interrupted.

Then one day, my father found her straining to breathe. The doctors think she suffered a heart attack. The paramedics took her to the ICU, but we finally brought her home for hospice. What was supposed to only be a week, stretched to several months — she was always resilient.

This isn’t the last photo I took of her. But it’s the one I am willing to share. A wave of wiry, salt and pepper hair of a woman who lived a simple, yet tremendous life. The last photo will not be one of pain and suffering. It will be dignified. What a fabulous head of hair!

Fujiko Murabayashi passed away in 2015 at the age of 99.

***

Despite how it sounds, I don’t obsess over the last photo. If anything, these photos simply remind me to live a full life. They have meaning beyond the over hashtagged, hyper-curated lives displayed on social media because these images have little relevance to anyone besides me. Yet, they are most important to me — a personal treasure of pixels representing the lives that graced mine.

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This article was written by

Allen Murabayashi is the Chairman and co-founder of PhotoShelter. He co-hosts the "I Love Photography" podcast on iTunes.

There are 12 comments for this article
  1. Tom at 2:46 pm

    Thank you Allen Murabayashi,
    Beautifully and sensitively stated. I think anyone who has been involved in photography for any length of time, will identify with these sentiments.

  2. Jesse S. Jones at 3:18 pm

    Allen,

    This is a great piece. Since getting into photography I have made it a point to make photographs of the people close to me on film, particularly B&W film, so that I have an image to mark that time/place/event. Even with the advancements in digital photography and storage I still find myself making those b&w film images and carefully processing the film myself and filing away the negatives.

    Thanks for writing this.

  3. Pingback: The Last Photo: Reflections on Pictures of Lives That Graced Mine | Photohangout
  4. Pingback: The Last Photo: Reflections on Pictures of Lives That Graced Mine | Chris Roubis Photography
  5. Chad at 5:13 am

    I read this twice. I can’t agree more with what you said. I started photography taking pictures of beautiful landscapes. Then I started taking pictures of beautiful people. Now my favorite thing is to capture beautiful moments. Without my photographs I would have forgot so many special moments in my life. I am so grateful for having developed the skill to record and remember all these special moments and people in my life. Your words really struck a deep chord. Thanks for making me stop for a little moment in my day, to remind me to reflect on life and all the amazing things it has to offer. Cheers Allen.

  6. Ellis at 6:39 am

    Dear Allen,

    Thank you for this eloquent piece of writing. At family gatherings I often get asked by various family members to put my camera away. You never know, or at least I never know, when I’ll see those people again. Life is like that and so I take pictures. The longer I photograph, the more acutely aware I become that I’ll never be in the same moment again, or share those moments with the same people again. Pictures don’t replace memories, but as your essay finely proves, they are like stupas: markers to the times we did share and the paths we have traveled down.

  7. ivar at 2:29 am

    Wonderful observations of what life is about and how photography can be an important part used with emotions. Thank you for sharing this and for making us think more about life around us!

  8. JoLinda Susilo at 1:15 am

    Thank you Allen!

    What an inspiration to read your article and witness your photographs! Wishing you continued joy and success in all you do.

    With aloha

  9. Rory at 10:32 am

    Dear Allen,
    That’s a great piece and the pictures are so moving, just because they are , well just so important to “US”, never mind the world.
    I am in my 70’s and shooting b+w and running a darkroom with fifty years of negatives, and the pictures that matter the most are the ones of…
    Ron sitting at the Victoria Falls in Africa, in 1963, sitting on a rock “showering”, with soap, in the sifting spray hundreds of metres from the water fall.. He’s an old man now…. and …and
    Yes, we could all go on and on.
    Thank you, regards, Rory

  10. Mark Antony at 3:38 am

    What a lovely and thoughtful article. Of course many of the things you say resonate with me and my life experience.
    I too had grandparents that lived into their 90’s two of which I was able to take images of just before they died-I remember taking the photos as if it were yesterday.

    I had a friend who asked me to do a shoot for his band and I set up my studio in his house. We had a very successful shoot and I processed and printed them that night.
    I was contacted by his mother a couple of days later to tell me he’d died that night and the other band members had told her about the shoot.
    I gave her all the prints and negatives of the last shots of her son alive.
    I too am the documenter of events and as I get older I have more images of people who have passed on.
    Thank you for your thought provoking post.
    Mark

  11. Pingback: this is a great piece of writing !

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